Category Archives: Ryan Kelley

Tequila With a Modern Twist: The Story of Yeyo Tequila (Part 2)

yeyo tequila
By Ryan Kelley | 03.15.11

It’s halfway through my interview with Jon Bullinger, founder and owner of Yeyo Tequila, and the rain in Portland, Oregon, continues to fall relentlessly. Having already discussed how he created the flavor profile and shape of his tequila (in part 1 of this interview), it was time to address the curious four letter name – “YEYO”.

“A name has to be simple,” Jon says, “the shorter the better. You can remember it easier.” The name should also be easy to type, roll off the tongue, and have positive connotations with consumers. One possible name for the brand was “Diego.” “People know the name,” he explains, “it’s associated with sunny San Diego, and it’s easy to spell – there’s a connection between the consumer and the product as soon as they see it.”

But like most of the names on his initial list of 50 possibilities, Diego was already a registered trademark. There was one, however, that stood out. “’Yeyo’ actually means a lot of things. If you think of it in North America, it’s [slang for] cocaine … but if you go outside North America it means a lot of things. I had someone buy it at the liquor store just because of the name. She said ‘this means Mother’ [in Swahili] and she bought a bottle for that – the mother of tequila. I actually learned that right then.”

Before I can ask if he’s gotten any flak for the name, he continues telling me aspects of the name that he likes:” I thought it was clean,” he continues, “having two of the same letters – the ‘Y’s – you can do a lot graphically.” Connotation and meaning aside, the name is definitely unique. Jon points out “there is no tequila in the world that starts with a ‘Y.’ Yeyo is the only one. Go to ‘D’ or ‘A’ and there are two pages. Everyone is ‘Don’ or ‘Azul.’”

Being different and standing out from the crowd is a conscious effort. “I positioned myself away from traditional tequila and I’m starting my own category and it’s Yeyo, and I want to be number one in my own category – very different from everyone else.”

When we spoke almost a year ago, Yeyo was already making waves in Oregon, routinely coming in behind heavy hitters Patrón and Don Julio as a top-selling blanco. He focuses on both on-promise (bar and restaurants) and off-premise (liquor stores) accounts, but says he prioritizes liquor stores over the bars. “The money doesn’t come from restaurants and bars, it comes from liquor stores: 70-80 percent.” He breaks it down like this, “I can buy one shot in a restaurant and 25 shots in a liquor bottle – plus you take it home and share it with your friends and then they’re talking about it.” Jon still does work to ensure Yeyo Tequila is placed in bars and restaurants – in fact, some bars in Oregon have ousted Patrón for Yeyo – although he also admits there are some unique challenges. “The bar industry is really flakey … [One day] you have a bartender that loves your tequila and then they quit. The next bartender doesn’t like your tequila and that’s it. And unless you’re a giant it’s hard to get on a restaurant’s menu. [You end up] buying the restaurant’s menus – all stuff under the table – $500 to $1000 for a spot. I’d rather spend my time in the liquor store having tastings and having people try the tequila than spend any money in a bar or restaurant any day of the week.”

The comparison of Yeyo to Patrón comes up more than once in our conversation, but Jon makes it clear that his sights aren’t set on Patrón. “I don’t bag on Patrón, [the bartenders in Oregon] talk about it. I let them vent. Maybe because [Patrón is] mainstream and everywhere so it doesn’t make it as special [as Yeyo]. I don’t know what it is but I’ve heard it from a lot of bartenders in Oregon.” When Yeyo does invade a bar, it seems to dominate and slowly chip away at Patrón’s market. He gives me an example: “Couture down the street [doesn’t] sell Patrón anymore. They say: ‘we sell Yeyo, it’s the same price (per shot) and it’s twice as good.’ They have people try it, they like it and people eventually switch.” This has resulted in Yeyo doing very well in “little towns like Wheeler and Killer out in the middle of nowhere. People try it, like it, and then talk about it. [Bar Patróns become] Yeyo ambassadors – people who are a fan of the marketing and tequila – people who like that it’s got Beaverton, Oregon on the back … these people convince the bar to carry it and they convince their friends to drink it with them at the bar and that’s how we grow.”

This grassroots approach to selling tequila is similar in style to the way Jon designs his marketing campaigns. Press material, publicity photos, YouTube video advertisements, and even the fonts are all done “from scratch,” Jon says with pride, “I don’t copy anyone.” Beginning in 2009, Jon began producing a series of YouTube video commercials. “We began shooting it in August 2009 and then slowly released them. I spent only $4500 on all that, which is pretty cheap.” While he provides advice and input, Jon prefers to let his friends’ creativity go wild. “Everyone who works with me, I let them run with it. I say ‘you’re good at what you do so I’m not going to put any boundaries. Come up with a couple of things and we’ll see what happens.’”

Jon himself is also not afraid to get his hands dirty, and is determined to show people that tequila is not what they think it is. For Oregonians who purchase a case for a party or event, he and General Manager Alex Roosevelt will “go to your house and bartend and teach you how to make drinks with it and tell you about the tequila.” Jon speaks highly of his colleague Alex, who had been working in the bar industry for 13 years. One of the first times they did a party, Jon was amazed at his friend’s inherent talent. “Every other drink was amazing. He went from having never touched drinks before in his life to becoming…a mixologist. Just like that. When I mix a drink, he can tell me what’s missing. I can use the same ingredients as him, but it doesn’t come out the same.”

At these events, Jon’s focus is on reeling in the guests. “Say someone had a bad experience with Jose Cuervo [Especial] – they don’t want to touch tequila. They look at what we’re mixing and say ‘what’s in that?’ I tell them there’s tequila in there and they say, ‘really’?” He then convinces them to try it straight, and “they are surprised they like it.” When mixing the drinks, Jon and Alex often make tequila versions of classic drinks, such as mojitos and martinis. It’s all about changing people’s perceptions of tequila. “I don’t see why we have to use rum or vodka with these drinks.”

Yeyo is currently only available as a silver tequila for several reasons. “Marketing and [building] awareness of one is a lot of work,” Jon concedes. “And to get the right taste is a lot of work.” Jon is researching and experimenting with different woods, but doesn’t feel a need to rush the release of a reposado or añejo. “I have a lot of time,” he says, “and we’ll make sure it’s styled and correct and I’ll make sure a lot of people try it before it comes out.”

Instead of developing and marketing aged Yeyo, Jon is focused on expanding into other states. Last year he was planning to expand into California and had started to build buzz with a Yeyo California Facebook page. He wants to be cautious when moving south into California. “I know it is a huge spot so we’ll probably start in Sacramento and then we’ll slowly get bigger. There’s way too much demand. I don’t even have enough glass to supply even Sacramento. So it’s going to have to go slowly. We’ll grow.”

After following up with Jon last week, he tells me that California is temporarily off the radar. “After analyzing the market in California, we decided to remove it from the current roadmap.  While I personally love this place, we realized that in order to launch a product in states like California, Nevada and New York you need to have a very large budget in place (millions per state) to launch the product the right way.”

Instead, Jon is turning to smaller states, but his goal remains ambitious. “Yeyo is entering Arizona, New Mexico and Texas within the next 60-90 days.  These states do not need a mass amount of capital the big three require.  Yeyo must be in the top 5 selling tequilas in each market it is sold in before we expand again.  I have very high expectations for the Yeyo brand when I enter new states, Yeyo must outpace others in mindshare and sales.”

Our conversation wraps up with Jon discussing another idea he’s had for marketing Yeyo. The “Yeyo Lounge” is a bar where all the cocktails and food feature Yeyo. He would take a unique approach to the design, where people and faces are at the center of it, not bottles and logos. “I don’t agree with the way most bar structures are set up … the Yeyo bar will be pods built for one bartender in each pod.” This Benihana-style bar is on the backburner, however, as Oregon law does not allow owners of liquor brands to own or staff a bar in the state. The Yeyo-dominated food and drink concept, however, is still moving forward. Jon’s friends just opened YOLO Lounge in downtown Portand. It’s a sushi lounge and martini bar and features 5 Yeyo cocktails, 3 Yeyo food items, a Yeyo liquid nitrogen drink, and a YOLO/YEYO honey sauce sold by the bottle.

The coffee is now cold and the rain is still falling in Portland. Jon and I part ways and as I sit behind the steering wheel of my car listening to the rain pounding from above, I reflect on our discussion and am reminded of something Jon said. I don’t know why it popped into my head, but I write it down because it summarizes his attitude and is, perhaps, the secret to his success: “It’s all about what we can do next.”

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Tequila as Jon Bullinger Intends: The Story of Yeyo Tequila (Part 1)

jon bullinger, yeyo tequila
By Ryan Kelley | 03.05.11

Not often do you have two influential experts write about a topic, head to head, under the same roof, and have it published, for all to see – no holds barred! Mike Morales, our Executive Editor and Ryan Kelley our Senior Editor, both had the chance to sit and chat, on different occasions, with Jon Bullinger of the up and coming and very tasty Yeyo Tequila. This is an unprecedented “blind tasting” if you will, in that neither of them had seen the others article on the same subject. So no bias here! This is Part 1 of Ryan Kelley’s conversation.

Jon Bullinger, owner and founder of Yeyo Tequila, is a rare breed. He’s a young man who knows what he wants, goes for it, and ultimately succeeds. I first tasted Yeyo after Jon sent me a bottle early last year, and I found it to be remarkably full of flavor and incredibly well-balanced. It’s only available as a blanco – for now – and distribution is limited to a handful of states. I met up with Jon at a coffee shop in downtown Portland, Oregon, where we took refuge from the cold rain of the Northwest and he shared the story of building his tequila.

At first glance, Jon seems more like a personal trainer than a tequila magnate; a young man in his late 20’s and sporting a muscular build, a freshly shaved head, and a calm, zen-like confidence. He was cool, calm, and collected, but his eyes couldn’t hide a giddiness, and within the first few minutes of our discussion, I learn he had just exchanged his full-time job as a Marketing Specialist for chipmaker giant Intel for “full-time Yeyo.”

As Jon explained, “I’ve been doing 80 hours a week for the last 3 and 1/2 years – both jobs, non-stop. [Yeyo has] been run on coffee and Red Bull and Rockstar. When I got off work at Intel my day started all over again until I fell asleep … [Intel wanted to] give me a promotion; they wanted me to manage more. I just said at that point, I said ‘my brand has suffered.’ Yeyo has suffered by spending more time at Intel. And that’s not what I wanted to do … I worked out how to take my paid vacation [and] my last day was Monday – so now it’s full time Yeyo.

“It’s so much better. I met 7 accounts yesterday – just to show my face. I’m doing the Yeyo tour. I do bartending, tastings, you know, teach them to make drinks and talk to them about tequila. It’s more like an educational tour. Most people don’t know anything about tequila.”

So what do people in Oregon tend to think of when you say ‘tequila?’ Jon shrugs and offers an all-too familiar lament, “They think Jose Cuervo is a great deal and usually get that because it’s cheap. There are so many people at the liquor store [who think this way]. I just did a tasting on Saturday and nobody knew what 100% agave tequila is and they don’t know anything, they think that gold defines tequila.”

The evolution of Yeyo began about six years ago as Jon entered the corporate world of Intel while pursuing a degree in business management. “I was interning at Intel. I had an idea that I wanted to do a spirit – I didn’t know what spirit yet. I was designing bottle labels –Jon B. Vodka. I knew nothing about distilling at this point – it was just an idea at the time, but with 40 hours [at Intel] and then 40 hours at school there was no way I could start a company. As soon as I finished college in 2007, I used the money I got back from my tax returns and hired a business partner.”

Applying what he learned in school and while at Intel, Jon began researching and surveying the spirits market. “I saw that vodka was way too saturated. There was no way I could stand out in the vodka industry – it’s huge … You can go get a license and make it out of your house in Washington! It’s the same thing with gin [and with most] other spirits. And as I was looking at each, I was looking at how well people had done with them: Whiskey has done well; Cognac has done well. I think Vodka – well, there’s a lot of people who do it … I don’t think tequila has always been done right. I think I have a different version of what it should be like and this is what you see today.”

With the decision made to produce a new kind of tequila, Jon recruits a neighbor he grew up with (“Oscar – I call him my foreign relations guy.”) Oscar is from Mexico City and speaks fluent Spanish. “We went all over Mexico and when we got to Arandas a lot of distilleries never let me in past the gate. I’d give them a business card and they’d never call me back.”

But then Jon and Oscar get a stroke of good luck. “I actually found a distillery in Arandas where the gate was open and we drove right in, which is kind of risky because most of the distilleries are very private and they don’t want you to go in. It was the end of the day and we’d been driving a long time and we were trying to find a hotel because we were exhausted. It’s like six o’clock at night … We get to the office and go in – Oscar’s talking and they say ‘no.’ So we walk out and go to the car. I asked Oscar, ‘what did you say,’ to make sure he translated it the correct way. I repositioned what he was going to say and then went back in and he talked to him again, and I don’t know if everything that I say gets translated the right way but [it worked and] we got to do a little walkthrough  for a couple minutes. I didn’t get to try any of their tequila but sampled the agave and it was amazing – it was right out of the cooker. I had tried a lot of other agave and I couldn’t even finish it, but this distillery, you could probably sell it on a stick it’s that good.”

After resting at a hotel down the street, Jon and Oscar went back to the distillery the next day. Distillery Feliciano Vivanco (NOM 1414), admired by many tequila insiders and aficionados, would eventually become the home of Yeyo Tequila. For the next three years Jon spent all of his accrued vacation time going to Mexico and working with the distillery and sorting through government red tape. When he returned home to Oregon he took the in-development Yeyo and tasted it for his friends alongside other silver tequila. All price tags were removed from the bottles. Jon recorded what people liked about each tequila as well as how much they would pay for the juice.

“I [brought] my spreadsheet down to Mexico and said ‘hey guys, this is what the palate is saying in the Northwest. What can we do differently?’ And we looked into evolving the distillery … They hadn’t changed the process of evolving their production techniques. So we looked at changing the [ovens]. Instead of the steam coming from the bottom, we [added] slits in the side. We built copper piping so the steam can go all the way around the agave [so we] allow the steam to go up and cook the agave at different angles.” Jon and his distillers tried various cooking and cooling times, and each visit resulted in a bottle “A” and bottle “B” that he would take back to the Pacific Northwest. He would record his friends’ reactions on the spreadsheet and return to Mexico to make additional modifications.

Not only is Jon a fan of his own tequila, but he has a lot of respect for his distillery and the other brands that “live” there: Muchote, Siembra Azul, Nobleza, Buscadores, and Mañana. “Everyone has their own style of doing it,” Jon explains. “The cool thing is I have my own section so I can have my distillation and do my own thing … I’m using all copper. Some guys are using stainless steel.” With a reputation for producing high-quality tequila, Distillery Feliciano Vivanco was recently able to grow twice as big as it used to be, ensuring diversity of technique in cooking, fermentation, distillation, and aging.

With so much tequila in the market, Jon knew Yeyo had to be different. “It feels like everyone in the tequila industry copies everybody else and I don’t know why that is,” he wonders aloud. “I feel like people thought about the tequila after they rushed it…like they threw it together in eight months. I took three years to do this. I made sure it’s been done right.”

For Jon, doing it right is the result of a lot of trial and error. This was not only true in the development of the juice, but also the bottle design, brand name, and marketing approach. Jon’s ideas were both inside and (way) outside the box; he even designed a bottle concept that was made out of wood!  “I had 25 bottles [that] I designed [and worked] with three different glass companies.” Once he had conceptual designs, they were tested and he posed questions to bartenders and other members of his focus groups: What do you like about this design? Does this feel good for you to hold? How much air escapes? Will an air bubble get caught in the boot of the bottle? It was important to Jon that the bottle be functional yet also catch someone’s eye. “These are all those little things that take time … All the glass is made in France. Their [error] rate is like 1% and so there’s no giving back the bottles or the corks of the bottles, [but] I’d rather make less money and have Yeyo be good for twenty years anywhere in your house.”

With such a strong commitment to Yeyo and taking into account his meticulous approach, you would think Jon had spent years involved in marketing. But he actually had studied business management originally. His foray into marketing began at Intel, after his internship had ended and he was told he has to get a degree to stay with the company. “I didn’t want to start my masters. I wasn’t ready; I had been in school for six years at that point. I looked at what I wanted to do and marketing was the other degree that I could pick, but it was eight more months of school. So I said ‘alright, I’ll do marketing’ so I can stay at Intel.” His new job was running “continuous improvement,” which involved talking with and understanding Intel customers and development partners to come up with better products and services. Sound familiar?

In a fortunate turn of events, Jon’s job at Intel morphed into running the social media strategy and he was then put in charge of some of the regional software associations, including Mexico. “I used to travel to Mexico and Brazil almost on a weekly basis. It was weird because I would be going down to Guadalajara and I [had to be discreet] because I kept [Yeyo] a secret.” The secret came out a few months before his departure, but Jon has a good reason for why he kept it a secret, “They don’t want you doing anything else [other than Intel], even if there is no conflict of interest…they want you there for life.”

In part two of my conversation with Jon, he discusses his plans for the future of Yeyo – including aging, mixology, building the brand, and the origin of the tequila’s unique name.

Read Part II Here

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Adventures with Cuervo

Mike Morales and Ryan Kelley arrive in Guadalajara and are driven to an unknown hotel.

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Adventures with Cuervo: Bottling Reserva de la Familia

Senior Editor Ryan Kelley gets hands-on and bottles his own Reserva de la Familia bottle at Jose Cuervo’s La Rojeña distillery.

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Passion for Tequila, Culture, Fun, and Family Fuel Success at Tres Agaves

By Ryan Kelley | 12.01.10

Tequila bars are wonderful places. Like the distilleries in Jalisco, they’re packed with people who have a passion for tequila. One of the best and most well-respected tequila bars in the country is Northern California’s Tres Agaves, which boasts locations in both San Francisco and Roseville, just outside Sacramento. After dining and drinking at the Roseville location, I was curious to hear more about their tequila program. I was privileged to speak with Executive Beverage Director Ashley Miller about how she got involved with tequila and Tres Agaves, and how she stokes the flames of passion for tequila amongst her staff.

A self-described “tequila nerd” and tequila “hoarder” (yes, she’s even got some in storage), Ashley oversees tequila selection, training, and much of the marketing for both Tres Agaves locations. She has over 65 bottles of tequila at her house, mostly rare bottles she can only get in Mexico. “And I wonder why everyone loves to come to my house!” she jokes. Ashley was away on a staff retreat at the time of my visit to Tres Agaves, so we weren’t able to share a glass of tequila together but instead spoke over the phone right before happy hour.

Ryan Kelley, Tequila Aficionado: Where did you discover your passion for tequila, and how did you come to work at Tres Agaves?

tres agaves, blanco, tequila, tequila aficionadoAshley Miller: Like everybody else, I had my bad experience with tequila. Mine was actually when I was in high school – I was an early bloomer – when I had my bad experience with mixto tequila. I pretty much swore it off and then, right when I turned 22, I was bar managing while I was in college at a small little dive bar in Reno, NV. It was there where my interest with tequila sparked. There wasn’t very much [tequila] behind the bar, but there was Cazadores, Patron, pretty much your standards. And then, surprisingly, one bottle of Don Eduardo – which was before Don Eduardo was Brown-Forman and has grown what it has to today. I started drinking tequila and it became my drink of choice and I started doing research on my own, more out of curiosity than anything else.

I moved to San Francisco in 2006 and wanted to bartend because I was broke and just wanted to make money. I was walking down in SOMA where the Giants play and thought, ‘that has to be good money’ and then stumbled across Tres Agaves. I took one step inside and saw the tequila selection and said to myself, ‘this is where I want to work.’ I was really fortunate because I got hired on the spot. I was the only girl bartender that lasted more than two weeks. The Mixology industry in San Francisco is much more male-dominated and what we put our bartenders through is difficult. It’s squeezing fresh juices; there’s a lot of lifting; it’s not an easy job. I managed to make it past the two weeks and bonded with the staff. I knew after two weeks that I was home.

tres agaves, reposado, tequila, tequila aficionadoWith hard work and determination, I got to go on my first trip to Mexico with the company only a few weeks later. The General Manager at the time was impressed with my dedication to the company. I did a couple projects – marketing efforts – and he offered me the bar managing position. I got to go to 7 distilleries on my first trip [to Mexico]. Only a few weeks after my return, I was offered the beverage directing position. Before you know it I took on the marketing, the beverage program, and I ended up opening our other location [in Roseville].

I consider it to be the luckiest stop I ever made. I wouldn’t change anything. I’ve learned more working for this company than I can even credit to my four years of college, my degree, and my two minors. I’ve learned so much and I think I can only continue to learn with this company. If for any reason I left this place, I know I can do anything. I’ve learned everything here.

RK: What are you responsible for in your position, and how do you choose which tequilas to bring in to Tres Agaves?

AM: My job is to select the tequilas and bring them to the staff, although we decide together. I do all the staff training and a lot of marketing. I work on our global marketing, employee relations, the tequila program, and all the training.

I don’t believe in the “I” philosophy, I believe in the “we” philosophy – I think it’s really important that it’s not one person making the decision because at the end of the day tequila is very diverse. There’s a lot of history behind it … I believe it’s very important that the bartenders/mixologists and the staff are behind every tequila we carry.

I research the tequilas and bring them to the staff, but we work on [selecting] them together. We both talk to the brand representative and we come up with a mutual agreement. Our beverage program is designed based on this system. To be a strong brand that we believe in, [like] Siete Leguas or Herradura – brands that are untouchable because they have a great flavor/taste that we really enjoy on the palate and can easily recommend – you have a great history, or story, and people behind the brand.

The distillery and support are also very important. Visiting [distilleries in] Mexico is one of the most important parts of our training program. All our tequilas on the back bar we like to be able to go to the distillery so we can experience how it’s made.

RK: What’s involved in training a new employee?

AM:We believe that [training] is the most important part of our restaurant; it sets us apart from other tequila bars (which are sprouting up everywhere) because people are developing a greater appreciation for tequila every day. The training extends not just from our bartenders and waiters, but to our host staff and even to our bussers and kitchen members so that they know the basics of tequila and our tequila program. It’s important they be able to tell you the history and flavor profile for each and every brand we carry …

… Once every two months or so, I go through the basics with all the employees – explaining mixto versus 100% agave, the process of making tequila, denomination of origin, everything that makes tequila stand out from other spirits. We always connect it back to the culture because our cooking focuses on the cuisine of Jalisco – so we always bring it back to the food. I pull about 15 different brands off the back bar and we discuss them openly as a group. ‘Why do we carry this brand?’ and [then] we build on that. We taste a lot of tequila!

The idea of the training program is to get the staff on board and excited. Some employees aren’t confident in their ability to even drink tequila, but even those who are hesitant to drink tequila end up ordering tequila neat and that’s all they drink. It … becomes a part of them.

When we opened our Roseville location we held a 2-day seminar [for] three hours each day. We started with the basics of tequila and introduced the beverage program. Then we went highlands, then lowlands, and for six hours each day we connected everything they learned with their taste buds.

If staff retains 10% of what they learn, that’s great, but repetition and follow-up are equally important. We do a pre-service [meeting], which is a gathering [of staff] we do before the shift. It might be in relation to the distillery of the month program or a brand we are considering carrying or is new to the restaurant. It’s an open-forum discussion to talk about the brand, ask ‘what does the staff think, what do they like, what do they taste, etc.’ We [sometimes] do blind tastings … The idea is to get them so drawn into the tequila world and the culture and everything that has to do with Jalisco and the tequila region that they want to be the best server and want to have the knowledge of our best bartenders. We constantly challenge them with the blind tastings, making [each meeting] different so that it’s not a routine and they’re not just coming in and going through the motions without gaining any new knowledge.

After an employee has stood out and rose to the challenge [by] showing they are passionate about tequila, we reward them with a staff trip to Mexico, which we do once a quarter.

RK: How long does it take to get to the trip?

AM: It takes about six months, but if an employee really makes an effort and stands out; coming in early before their shift to read the ‘Tequila bible,’ which we keep behind the bar as a quick reference so staff can refresh themselves on a brand. Or maybe they wait around after their shift to ask questions about a brand. These employees stand out as dedicated and what we’re trying to accomplish.

RK: What do you do when you’re in Mexico with the staff? Any highlights or favorites?

tres agaves, anejo, tequila, tequila aficionadoAM: It’s really important when we go to Mexico to have a balance of culture, food, and tequila. Depending on the trip (it’s usually 5-8 days) we have about ten people on one trip from both [Tres Agaves] locations. We fly into Guadalajara and usually spend a couple days in Los Altos, averaging about 2 to 3 distilleries in one day. We then spend a couple of days in the Valley of Tequila. The goal is that at the end of the week we’ve visited at least 8 to 10 distilleries. It’s also important to experience the food, from eating to taco carts to old, historic restaurants to experiencing some of the classic cocktails of Mexico. We go to the oldest bar in Guadalajara … I always like to add one additional thing on each trip that’s unique. For example, on our last trip we went to the Corona distillery on the very last day. Sometimes we go to the CRT, the regulatory council for tequila, and tour the building to get an idea of what the CRT is responsible for doing. On our latest trip we are going to see a soccer game. It’s always something different because at the end of the day we want people who are as well-rounded and as experienced as possible – we want them to have a greater appreciation for everything at our restaurant. Everything at our restaurant comes from Mexico, from the furniture to the lighting fixtures to the food and drink.

When it comes to tequilas and how we pick [which distilleries to visit], it’s tricky because most of the time we have new employees, so we’ll often start with our tier one tequilas and then branch out to our portfolio brands and favorites. One of my favorites is Siete Leguas. I’ve never been on a trip where we haven’t gone there; the brand is a big part of our beverage program at both locations. El Tesoro, Don Julio, Herradura, Arette, Fortaleza, and Partida are all brands that are special to us, in addition to many others. These are brands we try to visit and offer a totally unique visit when we tour the distillery – from culture, family, brand size, production processes, etc. … it’s important that every brand stands out and our staff gets a good idea of the variety of ways tequila is produced to ensure they have a well-rounded experience.

RK: Do you visit Cuervo?

AM: We have in the past, but it’s not one we go to every time. Usually when we go to Cuervo we focus on their 100% agave tequilas more than the mixto. There are some other distilleries that produce mixtos and we always try to touch on that to get a good idea of how that is actually done, and why we carry only 100% agave tequila.

RK: How about another biggie, Patron?

AM: At the end of the day it’s easy to target the big dogs. Patron gets a lot of credit for getting the tequila industry to where it is today. We carry it because people who don’t know tequila will see Patron and then feel a bit more comfortable. From there we use it as a launching point – the last thing anyone wants to hear is that they don’t know anything. We ask if it’s a brand they always drink or if they have tried any other tequilas. We get them started with Patron but suggest they try something a little different to experience tequila beyond Patron.

RK: It’s what my friend Jason Lerner at Depot Nuevo calls a “Gateway Tequila?”

AM: (Laughing) Exactly!

I went to the Patron distillery three years ago – we were actually the first group from the U.S. to visit their new distillery. They had just opened the doors about a half year prior. It was an interesting experience and I haven’t had the opportunity to go back since that visit; it definitely put things into perspective.

RK: Can you explain how the Distillery of the Month program works?

AM: We’ve been doing this program for just over two years now … it was something to do that was different and unique … It’s a way of bringing Mexico here. It starts on the first and runs all the way through the month. We have a specialty menu that offers a bit of history of the featured brand, a special margarita, a special cocktail, and also a flight. At the beginning of the month we do a training with all the staff and [invite] the local brand ambassador to ensure our staff will be able to talk to the guest about the tequila and the distillery.

The third Thursday [of each month] is our main event in San Francisco: a five course dining experience with a flight of the tequila. Guests learn about the tequila and we bring in entertainment to make it fun. Roseville doesn’t have the space and the audience is not as well-educated [about tequila] – they’re getting there but it’s not like San Francisco, which is one of the leading cities of tequila knowledge and experience in the country … Roseville is much more marketing driven …

If I’ve learned anything about being in Mexico it’s that it’s laid back and fun. It’s bottles of tequila on the beach, everybody talking; it’s music and it’s culture. There’s so much more to [the distillery of the month program] than trying to throw this fancy schmancy dinner. It’s about talking to the person you may not know next to you and meeting them and getting an autograph from the master distiller. We might start the dinner at 7 and it’s suddenly 11 o’clock and you don’t know where the time went. You have a bottle of tequila in front of you and life is great …

One of the most memorable [events] was with Tequila Antiguo in May [2010]. Antiguo is a sister brand to Herradura. We were so lucky because Brown Forman flew up one of their jimadores and he brought a bunch of agaves and he did an agave harvesting demonstration right here in San Francisco. It was one of the most fun experiences, watching our biggest tequila lovers as they hack an agave!

Another one that comes to mind is Siete Leguas last April … it was such a sense of family … very inviting.

Nine times out of ten we do bottle signings because we get the owner of the distillery … with Corralejo we sat everybody down and made the perfect margarita. We poured the Grand Reserve and then another round of margaritas and we did it all over again!

RK: What was it like to select the Casa Noble Single Barrel for Tres Agaves?

AM: We did that a couple years ago; we were one of the first groups to do it. They were ahead of the game with their single barrel program. Myself and about 7 employees went down [to the Casa Noble distillery] together – it was really fun. We got to taste seven tequilas without talking about them – we felt like we were master distillers for an hour. We went back to taste them again, and then let our palates cool off by eating and getting all the spice off. We stayed there [at the distillery] and then we went back to taste again. Throughout all the tastings we had the scent kit out, as well as a variety of other tools to help us to make the right decision. We all finally agreed on barrel number 4.

It was so much fun because the staff got behind it so much, and we all contributed equally. It was a program I’d like to continue. I’m discussing a single barrel reposado with Herradura and something special with Siete Leguas. Each one would be unique and special, and is an opportunity for the employees to be a part of selecting the barrel.

RK: What are the differences between the two Tres Agaves locations?

AM: San Francisco is very different [from Roseville] because we’re right by the baseball stadium, but we’ve found a way to balance that. There are Giants or Dodgers fans breathing down your throat, demanding shots of Patron, or people who shy away from tequila due to a bad experience. I love the way the staff members handle that. Roseville is more marketing driven. Whatever is on the nearest billboard is what they’ll order and they were less open minded. But now that we’ve been here for a year, we’ve gotten people are finally opening up so we’re expanding and expanding. That’s where our passport program is tremendously successful, we have over 600 passport members there.

RK: Are there plans to open any additional Tres Agaves locations?

AM: We just finished remodeling our patio in Roseville, because it gets extremely hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Now it’s a little more year round. We put in a really cool outdoor bar – the coolest place to drink tequila and a beer. There are fans and you can just chill out and talk to the bartender and before you know it you’re there for four hours.

After we get through baseball and the busy season, we’ll look where we’re at as a company. We’ve been building the name and the brand. We were originally looking at a location in Vegas, but we have a couple years due to the recession hitting everyone in the country – especially in Las Vegas. In the meantime, we might open up one more Northern California restaurant.

Our goal is to never be corporate or franchised. We’re not after that at all. We would just like to extend to five controllable locations, probably no more than that. With five we can still maintain the culture, maintain a relationship … at the end of the day, the most important thing about this restaurant is the employees. We have one of the lowest employee turnovers I’ve ever heard of. We still have a big chunk of employees in San Francisco who have been there since our opening five years ago. In Roseville, more than 50% of our employees made it through the whole first year and into our second year.

RK: Why do you think this is?

AM: Our employees love to be here. They get here early; they stay late. They come in on their days off with family and friends. At the end of the day it’s tequila! We drink tequila and we have fun doing it, and it shows – that’s why guests like to be here. People don’t describe us as a sophisticated place or a fine dining experience. Generally, most people say ‘it was fun.’ They come to Tres Agaves for the tequila, they stay for the food, and they always come back for the service. They see how all the employees behave with each other. We joke around, we have fun, and we’ll pour rounds of shots … During an awesome night, we might be really busy, but someone got a great comment or morale is high, we’ll pour a round of shots. It doesn’t have to be much. Two days a year we close the restaurant down for a day to play some softball. We go to Mexico together. It’s just a fun place to work.

RK: And why do you stay?

AM: I’m really lucky that the owner believes in me 1000%. This is the place that I can see myself being for a long time. People ask if I want to be a [tequila] brand ambassador. But it’s not this. Here [at Tres Agaves] I don’t have to pick one brand. I can be friends with all of them – it’s just a totally different thing.

RK: There’s a Tres Agaves brand of tequila. Is it related to the restaurants, or a totally different thing?

AM: The restaurant brand was started by a large group of people – Julio Bermejo and Sammy Hagar both started out with us. When the [restaurant] brand was developed the thought of doing a tequila was in the back of some of those people’s minds. Their driving force to introducing the restaurant brand was to launch a new tequila. A couple of years ago some of them got serious about it, but because of … [California] law we had to separate the partnership – all on good terms – as of 2010. So they are two separate businesses. We’re each sticking to what we’re good at, so it’s the best of both worlds. We all recognize the brands are very similar, so we’ll be doing some things to separate the two a bit more. We want to do things together, but we’re still waiting on getting the ok from the ABC [California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control].

RK: Is there a lot of competition with other tequila bars in town?

AM:At the end of the day we want to promote tequila as an industry. For us it’s not competition, it’s friendship and partnership. We want to team up and do promotions – we just want to sell tequila. If that’s us or another restaurant – it’s the tequila that’s important to us. I’ve had people come in and ask me to help with their [restaurant or bar] training and [to see] our tequila list and I give it to them with open arms – we have nothing to hide and we’re proud of what we’ve done. If someone tries to duplicate what we’re doing, well, that’s a compliment!

RK: Any final thoughts?

tres agaves, tequila, organic, margarita, tequila aficionadoAM: I have the coolest job in the world. There’s a lot of grunt work: I do the marketing and spend a lot of time here. But every day is fun and I like to be here. When it comes to our tequila program and what we’re doing, I lead it; I do the menus, I have the final say in everything, but I believe in having the staff as involved as possible. If they support it then I support it. It’s something that’s special about us. It’s not one person – it’s a democracy – to a point. When it comes to the beverage program takes everybody’s efforts and I think it’s exciting to empower them, [to encourage them] to take the next step.

People who started at Tres Agaves have ended up doing different things within the industry. One person is a new brand ambassador for Fortaleza … another one moved to Guadalajara and got involved in freelance work and now has launched his own tequila in the U.S. It’s just amazing! People start here and whatever direction their career path goes it always comes back to tequila!

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